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Teaching inclusivity is not a quick lesson

The first trip to the principal’s office

Nothing prepares you for the first time your kid gets sent to the principal’s office. And, when the reason he is sent to the principal’s office is because he’s being a jerk, you want to crawl under a rock.

At five years old, my bright, wild boy went to Kindergarten this year. Gone are the days of sleeping in, watching Netflix and building Legos all day. It’s time for alarm clocks and sitting in his seat and raising his hand when he has something to say.

Needless to say, the transition has been rough.

It seems as though, during his first few weeks, Benjamin was not real clear on proper behavior in public. He got in trouble for swinging his sweatshirt around and hitting another kid with the zipper. He missed recess for acting like a chimpanzee who had escaped from the zoo during reading time. Everyday he came home grumpy and whining because he was so tired from the mental work of school. I was not amused.

One day, around week three or four of school, I picked him up and he told me that he had a note in his bag that I needed to sign.

“What does it say?” I asked.

“You can just read it at home,” he responded.

I prodded him, trying to get him to tell me what happened, but he just looked out the window.

When we got home I opened his bag, and there it was, a yellow carbon copy of a “Wolf Warning Referral” with angry looking writing scribbled all over it. The teacher ran out of room on the little line meant for her explanation and used all of the margins to get the story out. I could tell that she was not pleased.

It seems as though, my dear boy was walking in line with his class and the girl in front of him was going too slow for his liking and so he kicked her in the back of the calves. Multiple times.

“Benji!” I exclaimed. “Did you kick the girl in front of you in line?”
“Well, I had to,” he said. “She was going too slow and I was going to yell at her to hurry up, but then I remembered that she doesn’t speak English so I just had to kick her.”

Now, I need to take a little detour right here. You see, a few months ago, if you would have asked me – “Betsy, what do you feel like you are really good at as a mother?: I would have said – “Well, I feel like I am really teaching my kids about diversity and respecting other people. I have bought a ton of books on the subject and read Benji stories about kids in other countries, celebrating skin color and being kind to people who are different. We have pen pals in Uganda. My brother is deaf so my kids see me communicating with him through sign language regularly and we talk about it. I have quite a few friends who speak English as a second or third or fourth language. I have travelled a bit and tell my kids the stories. My husband and I consciously model inclusive behavior.”In that moment, though, none of that mattered. When Benji got frustrated and he reacted with his first impulse, to kick the poor girl every bit of pride that I had in raising respectful, kind children came crashing down.

“Ummm, you kicked her because she didn’t speak English?”

“Yeah mom,” he responded.

After my mortification and panic began to subside, I took a few breaths and went in head-first.

I messaged Benji’s teacher who told me that, yes, this student speaks Spanish. So, among other things, my husband and I helped Benji write an apology note in English and in Spanish. We spent some time on YouTube learning a few Spanish words and practiced how he could say sorry in person. We talked about language and immigration and what it must feel like to be placed in a school where you couldn’t communicate with everyone. We talked and talked… well, I talked and Benji tried to listen but his eyes sort of glazed over after a bit.

The next morning, we got to school bright and early for the apology. We asked the little girl to come in the hallway with us and Benji gave her the apology that he had practiced in English and Spanish. The timid little girl didn’t say a word. But, Benji was brave even though I know he felt shame and embarrassment. Then he gave her the picture he had drawn and the ring pop we had bought her.

The little girl seemed happy about the ring pop and gave us a smile and then went back into class.

In that moment I realized something. Teaching inclusivity and respect is not going to be a quick lesson. We are going to talk about it and model it and mess up and apologize time and time again. I need to accept that and hunker down for the long haul.

As the weeks have gone on, Benji’s behavior at school has improved. He is getting used to the rhythm and expectations of school. He has also not kicked anyone else, which I consider a win.

I’m not fooling myself though. I know we will be back in the principal’s office again at some point. I know he won’t always conquer the natural impulse to be a jerk. On my end though, (while I, myself, also fight the urge to be a jerk sometimes) I will keep reading and talking and modeling and praying to the high heavens that my kid grows into a thoughtful, contributing member of society.

Written by Betsy Ryan

Betsy Ryan

Betsy Ryan resides in Watford City and is a recent transplant to Western North Dakota. She is learning to navigate her new landscape along with her husband and their two boys. Betsy writes for the McKenzie County Farmer and also shares her experiences in North Dakota on her blog,

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